What Does it Mean to be a Hero?

by Benjamin Studebaker

A few months back, I watched a show on Netflix called BoJack Horseman. There’s a bit in the show where BoJack, the protagonist, gets into an argument with a veteran about the nature of heroism:

In particular, BoJack says:

Maybe some of the troops are heroes, but not automatically. I’m sure a lot of the troops are jerks. Most people are jerks already and it’s not like giving a jerk a gun and telling him it’s okay to kill people suddenly turns that jerk into a hero.

This has got me thinking–what does it mean to be a hero?

In moral philosophy, there are several different kinds of action:

  1. Requirements/Duties/Obligations–actions that one must do (e.g. paying one’s taxes).
  2. Permissible Acts–actions that one is neither required to do nor prohibited from not doing (e.g. painting one’s house red).
  3. Prohibitions–actions that one must not do (e.g. stabbing one’s children).

There is a special kind of permissible action that moral philosophers argue about called the “supererogatory”. Supererogatory acts are acts that are so exceptionally good that it would be unreasonable to require people to do them. For instance, there are some moral philosophers who think it would be a very good thing if you donated every dollar you made beyond some minimum threshold (e.g. $30,000) to poverty relief in the developing world. Most philosophers however do not think that it would be reasonable to require every person to do this. Consequently, they do not think it should be required. They think it is permissible and supererogatory, and that one who actually did such a thing would be exceptionally praiseworthy.

This, I propose, is where heroism comes in. A hero is a person who does something supererogatory, who does something good that it would be unreasonable to demand from the average person. To act heroically and to act in a supererogatory way are the same thing.

Now, not all philosophers believe that there is such a thing as supererogatory action. Peter Singer, for instance, holds that every person has a moral duty to donate all income in excess of $30,000 to poverty relief in the developing world, and that every person who does not do this is acting wrongfully. For Singer, most permissible actions that are neither required nor prohibited are matters of taste, like what color one paints one’s house. If no actions are supererogatory, then no actions are heroic. If we really have a duty to donate all our excess funds to poverty relief, then fulfilling this duty is not especially praiseworthy–it is just adequate performance of one’s moral role. I propose that if there are no supererogatory actions, then there can be no heroism, because all actions, no matter how good, can at best be only the fulfillment of our neglected duties.

I hold the view that ought implies can–if we are going to require that people behave a certain way, we need empirical evidence that they are capable of doing so. It is unreasonable to ask a person to do something he cannot do. I cannot sprout wings and fly across the room, and if you demand that I do so, it will only serve to frustrate me and make me dismissive of the moral force of your other demands (e.g. that I not rob banks). There are acts that not every person is capable of doing, acts that require exceptional moral character or virtue. This moral character is acquired through education, and not every person has access to the same kind of moral education. Consequently, I hold that there are some actions that we cannot reasonably expect all people to have the capacity to do, and where capacity does not exist, obligation cannot exist. Therefore, I hold that some actions are supererogatory, and to do these supererogatory acts is to act heroically.

So which acts are supererogatory, and therefore heroic? When I try to separate supererogatory actions from obligatory ones, I use two related principles:

  1. The Reciprocity Principle: No person ought to be morally required to show moral concern to any other person unless that person is willing to reciprocate the benefits of that concern either directly (e.g. the relationship between two friends) or indirectly (the relationship between two fellow citizens who do not know each other personally).
  2. The Exploitation Principle: Exploitation occurs when one person is forced to self-harm for the sake of another without any prospect of reciprocity. It is always wrong for a person to be asked to participate in his own exploitation. Under special circumstances, it is sometimes necessary for the state to exploit individuals for the common good (e.g. drafting them in the army to repel an invasion), but the individual is never under a duty to cooperate freely. Instead, he is entitled either to be incentivized or to be coerced, whichever is more effective.

A person acts in a supererogatory way when he goes beyond the moral requirements of these principles. So it is heroic to show moral concern to a person who is unwilling and/or incapable of reciprocating that concern, and it is heroic to permit oneself to be exploited for the sake of another or society more broadly. What would be some real-world examples of this kind of behavior? Here are a few:

  • A person who donates time or money to foreign non-citizens with no expectation of payment or future reward, especially those from countries that are not allies or trade partners.
  • A person who makes a sacrifice for another that cannot be repaid, like diving on a live grenade.
  • A person who helps his fellow citizens beyond the scope of what the state requires, such as someone who adopts children, feeds the hungry, or houses the homeless without any expectation of payment or future reward.

So what about soldiers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, and so on? Are people who perform these occupations automatically heroes? The trouble is that people who do these jobs receive compensation for doing them. We pay soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and doctors for what they do. Does this payment constitute reciprocity? This depends on whether or not we believe that the payment constitutes fair compensation. The median annual wage for a firefighter in the United States is about $48,000. Is this a fair wage, or is it exploitative? If all the firefighters were to go on strike, would they be right to do so? What about police officers? Soldiers? If we think that these individuals are not paid anywhere near enough to constitute fair compensation, we could hold that they are permitting themselves to be exploited for the good of society and are thus heroes. If we think they’re paid fairly, then society is in a reciprocating relationship with these workers and their acts are an obligatory part of that reciprocal relationship.

That said, even if we come to the conclusion that these workers are not automatically heroes, that their relationship with society is a fair one, we might still nonetheless hold that individual soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and so on are heroes in their relationships with the individual citizens they help. If a firefighter saves my life, I cannot possibly repay him for that service and he is, in the context of my relationship with him, a hero. Society might fairly compensate him for the service he performs for us collectively, but I would still be unable to fairly compensate him for the service he performed individually, for my life has infinite value to me but finite value to my society. Perhaps that is the best way to think about it–some soldiers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, and so on are heroes, but only in the context of their relationships with those whose lives they save. In the wider social context, they are just like everyone else–provided that the wages we pay them are well and truly fair.